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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living

I always wondered what the other side knew that I did not.  The numerous fliers tacked to the bulletin board in the faculty lounge announcing all sorts of spiritual retreats, cosmological quests, experiences of the hypno-self and the spirit, conscious meditation, superconscious meditation, always made me wonder, "how does one become a spiritual cosmologician?"   Also, because of the research work I am engaged in right now, and having to sort of force myself to look at consciousness from an objective position, I thought I was even less prepared for reading anything related to this type of view point.  Only recently was I able to realize what I was missing.  Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those individuals I wondered about before I read his book.  His works is never long; most of his books are under 120 pages. I found "Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living" on a pile of books labeled "free."  It's the best time of the year--at the end of the study year calendar and faculty members are doing their spring cleaning of their offices and free books flood the halls!

My first reaction to the opening pages of "Touching Peace" was the same I've had for years when confronted with sort of what I call "new agey-granola based-do it yourself-organic-hippie" stuff.  Despite the fact that it seems like I am poking fun at the whole spirituality based life, I was always curious how people could live with the sort of peace that always eluded me.  When Hanh states that "Trees are beautiful, refreshing, and solid. When you want to hug a tree, it will never refuse. You can rely on trees. I have even taught my students the practice of tree-hugging," I thought I would put the book back in the "free" pile.  But being that it was only the fourth page, and the book didn't seem like a time consuming one, I persisted.  I HAVE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER TO END A BOOK!  This was the book I was missing all of my life.  The book began to "talk" to me directly.  After the first couple of chapters, I went outside to a perfect weather day, so blue it hurt your eyes to look up, but when I looked up the blue sky seemed different.  A little walk around campus offered even more insight: the trees felt so alive!  I don't think I had ever been so awake to nature before!  And read on I did with this little jewel of a book.  Thich Nhat Nanh has a new fan.

The book is a little dated, but in a way that made it speak to me directly.  Originally published just after the first Iraq War, "Touching Peace" comments on the act of war and the permanent damage it creates in the world.  Hanh states: "If we get angry, countless obstacles will be set up, blocking our way.  So, without anger, we have to find a way to tell the president [George Bush, father] that God cannot bless one country against another....  Look at the 500,000 men and woman from America and the West and the 1,000,000 Iraqi soldiers who spent months waiting for the land offensive to begin.  They had to practice killing day and night in order to prepare.  During the day, they wore helmets, took up guns and bayonets, jumped and yelled as if they were not human beings, and plunged their bayonets into sandbags representing the enemy soldiers.  If they did not become less than human beings, they could not have done it. They had to become inhuman to learn to kill. They did that during the day and during the night they did the same in their dreams--planting seeds of suffering, fear, and violence within their consciousness.... Then the war came. The actual killing was massive, and we called it a victory. When the 500,000 troops returned home, they were deeply wounded from practicing so much violence in reality and in their consciousness."  

To those who are familiar with this blog and some of the entries I have written regarding my war experience, the quote might strike as having been sent from heaven.  I do believe in miracles, always have.  I really believe this book waited for me to pick it up and read it.  It's like opening a door I always knew I had to open in order to reveal great truths about who I am and where I want to go from here.  It's been more than an eye-opener.  I meditate now (not every day, but I am learning) and I find it easier to be present in the moment rather than years behind or years ahead of myself.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Research Update: Learning About the Nature of Physics and Consciousness

There's the physics that only a few experts and their posse can understand, and then there's physics for the rest of us.  Never mind that I took three physics courses as an undergrad (yes, with labs) and had to work harder than I ever did to get a decent grade in the last course.  I was way over my head on that last one (acoustics and space).  At any rate, I have been reading and understanding anew massive questions about the nature of the physical world and our perception of the same.

First, I had to try and discover a basic definition of consciousness because that's where the research is aiming.  But having a habit of starting backwards, I read "The God Particle" by Leon Lederman, and it did help me to grasp some of the premises of "Consciousness" by Susan Blackmore.  Blackmore presents a beautiful and clear premise about consciousness studies.  It's wonderful, she states, that we live in an age of so much scientific advancement that the question of consciousness is now embraced by scientists who for years (if not centuries) had denied even the existence of such a question.  We cannot, she continues, extricate ourselves from consciousness to study consciousness.  This becomes the first Hard Question of consciousness studies.  We are all subject to the same physical laws that govern the universe.  As a result, the study of consciousness might find track in looking at the seat of consciousness; that is to say, where the soul sits.

The balance between experience and how our physical self responds to it is perhaps the best starting point.  Philosophers declare these experiences under the umbrella of the term "qualia."  Simply put, qualia refers to perceptions of the world that are divided between unique and universal.  For example, Blackburn refers to "[t]he redness of that shiny red mug is a quale; the soft feel of my cat's fur is a quale; and so it is the smell of coffee."  The qualia in how it relates to consciousness is, again, the division of perceptions that are agreed upon, and factual references that are universal and remain unchanged no matter the perception.  Blackburn refers to "Dualism" (as in Rene Descartes) in an attempt to draw a parting premise.  Throughout the ages, humanity has been molded (for the lack of a better term) in the belief that there are two realms of the world.  The first realm is the "us" inside.  The second realm is the "the" out there.  The question, however, can be argued to be related to the development of culture and civilization rather than a conscious effort by humans to question their existence and their sense of self.  For example, it can be argued that this dualistic idea comes from the clash between the developing human (hominid, etc.) with the environment and developing cognitive experiences which where translated into the recognition of self and others.  Nature, for example, must have been a perplexing discovery (to draw an understatement) and this discovery might have given rise to the explanation of phenomena as a creation of the "other."  The sun, as another example of outside of individual consciousness, becomes the controller of phenomena and thus religion developed.  Of course it isn't that easy a theory.  Matter and energy has existed in the universe since whatever it was happened at the beginning (Big Bang, God, etc.), and whether that matter was controlled under some confine of physical law was not define as such until rational beings began to discover it as such.  But I digress (to draw another understatement).  If I have taken an over-simplistic view of these premises, I am deeply sorry.

Blackmore relates Descartes theory clearly, "the mind is nonphysical and nonextended, while the body and the rest of the physical world are made of physical, or extended substance." Blackburn positions this explanation very well, and follows it up with the quintessential inquiry familiar with anyone who studied Descartes, "How do the two interact?"  Other philosophers or/and scientists completely reject the dual idea and resort to a unified theory, monism of sorts.  This guides the path to a narrower place which offers just as many questions as dualism itself.  Even if a person describes herself as a materialist, a monist in belief, the position still ignores the question of consciousness.  The world really can't just be that "solid" a material.  With new developments in science and neurobiology, materialists come armed with good research and data as to how the objective brain gives rise to 1) phenomena, 2) experience, 3) qualia.  It is clear enough to state that the brain is a matter, objective in the sense that it is tangible, real to the touch.  However, some problematic questions still persist.  How does the interaction of brain cells give humans the power to experience reality, to be conscious of what is around them (whether physical or not)?  Susan Blackmore cites Thomas Nagel as an example of consciousness as objective reality.  In 1974, Nagel used the premise of a cave bat.  "If there's something it is like to be the bat--something for the bat itself, then the bat is conscious.  If there is nothing it is like to be the bat, then it is not."  Interpreting this can take an examiner in different directions.  For one, the argument of whether or not animals are self-conscious is one that--despite the attempts in recent years by animal activists--still has no answer.  The bat would have to know the concept of his self; that is to say, because I am part of a number of bats in this cave I can recognize we are all bats.  Furthermore, the ability of a rational human being to recognize the bat makes the bat conscious.  Nagel goes on to make another comparison, "if you think that there is something it is like to be the worm then you believe the worm is conscious." If this seems like one of those "why ask why?" questions, then I am not doing a fair job of explaining it.  There's a good possibility that we can all account for an experience with an animal (a dog, cat, bird, etc.) in which we've come to believe the animal knows, or has self-awareness.  Perhaps it is the inability to remember that is the biggest determent to whether or not animals are self-conscious.  My cat walks by the full body mirror I use to practice the cello--she does so every day and I believe she's come to realize that the image of the cat outside of her "self" is not another cat but simply a reflection.  Yet, she forgets from time to time and fusses at the mirror as if for the first time.  However, Blackmore explains clearly that "it is no good talking about perception, memory, intelligence, or problem solving as purely physical processes and then claiming to have explained consciousness."  The argument remains irreconcilable due to the separation of physical matter and metaphysics.  There is an explanation--a very interesting one--in the book related to a "Zombie-like" entity, as to whether or not the dualistic is present in the zombie.  If the zombie is physical, walking around the world without perception/phenomenological ground, then the internal "self" doesn't exist.  The zombie doesn't exist not because it is a figment of our imagination, but because there's no recognition on the "inside" of the zombie.  And just like the bat argument, this one is another pocket of vacuum in this big inquiry.

From here the argument takes on the human brain.  How can we examine consciousness and assume that all consciousness are alike, or, rather, that since human brains are average-wise about the same size, what happens when we encounter a damaged brain?  Does consciousness operate differently there?  What about critical mental illness?  Are psychotic patients in lack or in possession of a different consciousness?  That is all for now.  The semester is coming to an end and there's much to do before the summer.  Shalom.

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Stephen Dobyns and The Most Perfect Theater of the Absurd

I had a few days off from research work to re-read a text which I hold as one of the funniest and most humorous by any contemporary author alive.  I include the critical text here as a way of sharing the humor and the good times.  Last time I read this out loud to my students, I suffered from one of those belly-aching, hyperventilating, unable-to-stop laughing fits.  It lasted nearly 10 minutes and I frankly thought I was going to die of laughter (not a bad way to go).  At any rate, the following passage comes from Stephen Dobyns' "The Wrestler's Cruel Study."  This was a gift (during that incredible summer of 1997 in Washington DC) from Dr. M., a doctor who was involved in the mental health examination of some of the people involved in the Watergate investigation.  At any rate, the novel is the story of a celebrity wrestler whose fiance has been abducted from her apartment.  Along the way, the protagonist blends into a series of characters that is beyond the humorous.  The novel has been called "very, very funny," but also "a blending of philosophy, the gimmick of pro wrestling and a mixture of fairy tale and Gnosticism."  At any rate, in this scene, three English professors from Hunter College are discussing the future of literature and the language:

"Three English professors from Hunter College are having a colloquy, although the words 'English' and professor are no longer part of their vocabulary.  They are theorists in textual studies and it is only to their dean that they are still English professors.  As theorists they are engaged in the production of significant texts in the same way that Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton once produced significant texts, but while the texts of  Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton have been deconstructed--that is, they are going down--the texts of these three gentlemen from Hunter College have been superstructed--that is, they are going up....
    'Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world'--just what kind of bullshit is that, anyway?' says one of the three men, whose name is DeMaus.
   'By pointing to the man,' says the second of the three, whose name is Vogel, 'the problem becomes a gender issue.' 
    'Even the word 'first,' says the third, whose name is Sosage, 'privileges defunct mathematical systems.'
    'And what is disobedient?' asks DeMaus. 'Doesn't this valorize a methodology of behavior which it is our duty to question?'
    It might be assumed that DeMaus, Vogel and Sosage are up drinking rather early.  In fact, they are drinking rather late, having begun the previous evening.  As theorists they no longer have the tweed and facial hair of traditional academics; instead they wear black leather jackets and black pointed boots, and Vogel has an earring.  All three are in their thirty and clean-shaven.
    'Consider the phrase 'fruit of that forbidden tree,' says Sosage. 'Just what is 'fruit?'  To point to one part of the tree and argue it is better than another part and to call that valorized part of the tree 'fruit' is to abrogate other arboreal components which certainly have individual validity, and even to say that these other components lack the taste of the supposed 'fruit' is indubitably an attempt to objectify an experience which at best is subjective and ephemeral.'
     'Even 'forbidden' is problematic,' says Vogel.
     'To tell you the truth,' says Sosage, 'I'm astonished he ever got that fucking thing published.'
In comes Wally Wallski, one of the central characters of the novel, not expecting a confrontation but observing the professors from a safe distance at the bar...  the professors continue ranting about the canon.
   'Defunct' says DeMaus.
   'Dismanteled' says Vogel.
   'Demolished' says Sosage.
   'Devastated' says DeMaus.
   'Despoiled' says Vogel.
   'Destroyed' says Sosage.
   'It seems to me,' says DeMaus, with the air of one struck by a new idea, 'that since Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton have been deleted, we owe it to humanity to take their place in order to avoid the creation of an unfortunate vacuum, which, we understand, nature abhors.'
   'Shouldn't one of us be a woman?' asks Vogel.
   'Or gay?' asks Sosage.
   'Perhaps,' says DeMaus, 'they were.  Who's to say that Shakespeare wasn't a woman or gay or a writer of color? And isn't the same also true of Chaucer and Milton?....
  'In fact,' continues DeMaus, 'we could easily establish that our fellow drinkers are the entire male hegemonical canon.... You there, calls DeMaus. Come here a moment.'
   Wally Wallski slowly walks over carrying his fifth beer....
   'What dead writers have you heard of?' asks DeMaus.
   Wally Wallski isn't much of a reader but as a fisherman he has a soft spot for Ernest Hemingway and has listened to the cassette version of 'The Old Man and the Sea' several times.
   'Ernest Hemingway,' says Wally Wallski.
   'By the power invested in me by the Modern Language Association,' says DeMaus, 'I make you Ernest Hemingway. I warn you of your duties and remind you of your privileges.'
   Vogel shakes Wally Wallski's hand. 'Congratulations. I've always admired your stuff.'
   Sosage gives Wally Wallski a glass of gin and pats his back. 'I'm really looking forward to your next book,' he says.
   Wally Wallski feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. 'What does it mean to be Ernest Hemingway?' he asks. He's not even a very good speller.
   'It means you're a fisherman par excellence,' says DeMaus.
   'It means you're Papa Macho, the first twentieth-century tough guy,' says Vogel.
   'It means you are boss of the simple sentence,' says Sosage. 'See Spot run. See Spot rise. Sun also rises.'
   'Tough guy?' asks Wally Wallski.
   'No one can push you around,' says DeMaus. 'Can you imagine someone pushing around Papa Hemingway? Absolutement pas!'
   'Of course,' says Vogel, 'you gotta quit this sexist shit.'
   'You gotta stop privileging the male hegemony,' says Sosage.
   'Racial stereotypes are a thing of the past,' says DeMaus.
   'Toughness in the service of theory,' says Vogel. 'Macho correctness in the service of macha prerogatives.'
   'It's mean writing books,' says Sosage, 'in which no one will find a single word offensive or disturbing.'
   'Books where the author,' says DeMaus, 'will always defer to the point of view of the reader.'
   'But I can't write!' says Wally Wallski.
   'That's just the point,' says Sosage. 'The books of the new Papa Hemingway are wordless and silent.'
   'The moment you set down a word,' says DeMaus, 'you compromise your uniqueness.'
   'What makes you great,' says Vogel, 'is your refusal to commit yourself to meaning.'
   'By being nothing,' says Sosage, 'you become all things to all men and women.'
   'And this makes you tough,' says DeMaus.
   'Powerful,' says Vogel.
   'Magnificent,' says Sosage.
Hilarity ensues from the first page of this great novel from the first page to the very last word.  I really can't do the book justice, as this is simple one example of Dobyns' Perfect Theater of the Absurd... It's Beckett but with a modern popular culture/technology twist.
The three professors are really a parody for so many of us who, at one time or another, take ourselves way too serious while at the job.  This cartoon might convey the point better....

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